Joe McDonald was angry. A paramedic tried to calm him down, but he looked at the damage done to his boat’s motor and he stared menacingly at the woman who had been so oblivious that she’d driven her red Jeep right into it.
It was a little before 6 p.m. on Saturday, November 18, 1995, and the scene at the intersection of Fort Harrison Avenue and Belleview Boulevard on the south side of Clearwater, Florida was getting chaotic. Things had started when an older woman in a sedan had collided with a man on his motorcycle. It was a minor collision, and as the traffic came to a standstill, the man was trying to pull the fender on his motorbike back into position.
Joe McDonald had just been sitting there in his pickup, waiting for the intersection to clear up again, when he’d felt the impact on the boat that he was towing behind him on a trailer. The woman in the red Jeep had run smack into his propeller, damaging the Jeep’s grille.
Paramedics Bonnie Portolano and Mark Fabyanic were already on the scene, checking to see if anyone needed assistance. They’d been called out on the motorcycle accident, and were there when the Jeep hit the boat.
McDonald told them that the woman who hit him was nuts. When he went to see what she’d done, she had said to him, “Where’s the people? Where’s the people?”
Bonnie went to talk to the woman. She was in her mid-30s, tall, and didn’t seem to be injured. She was wearing loose-fitting pants and a cotton slipover shirt that had paint stains on them. She gave her name as Lisa McPherson, and her responses, Bonnie noted, were a bit robotic. But Bonnie had been at many accident scenes, and was accustomed to people acting very strangely in the stress of that kind of situation. Lisa just seemed a bit dazed, and McDonald was pissed off. There was nothing unusual about that. Bonnie and her partner Mark had Lisa move her car to the side of Belleview Boulevard so traffic could get moving again, and then they got back in their ambulance.
And that’s when Mark said it.
“Bonnie, she’s taking off her clothes.”
“No, she’s not,” Bonnie replied.
“I’m not lying.”
Sitting in the driver’s seat and looking at his side mirror, Fabyanic could see that Lisa McPherson had stripped off every stitch of her clothing, and was now walking down the middle of the road.
Bonnie grabbed a sheet from the ambulance and ran to Lisa, wrapping it around her. Then she guided the woman into the vehicle and had her lie down.
“Lisa, why did you take off all your clothes?” Bonnie asked as she tried to soothe the confused woman.
“Well, you see, nobody knows this but I’m an OT and I don’t need a body,” Lisa answered.
Bonnie had no idea what that meant. So she tried again.
“Why did you take off all your clothes? What’s up?”
“Well, I wanted people to think I was crazy because I want help.”
Bonnie noticed that Lisa seemed exhausted, and she had a hard time keeping her eyes open. But Bonnie wanted Lisa to keep talking, and kept asking her what she needed help with.
“I’m a bad person,” Lisa said.
“Why do you think you’re a bad person?”
“I found out I’m having bad thoughts. I’m doing bad things in my mind.”
A police officer arrived, having picked up Lisa’s clothes.
“I took my eyes off the object,” Lisa added.
The police and the paramedics discussed the situation, and whether they were going to “Baker Act” Lisa — a Florida law that would allow them to take Lisa in for psychiatric evaluation either with or without her consent. They decided to take her to a nearby hospital and let the doctors there decide what to do.
When a police officer asked Lisa about where to tow her car, she gave them the address of a condo on Osceola Avenue, and it was at this point that Bonnie guessed that Lisa might be a Scientologist. Since 1975, Scientology had taken over much of downtown Clearwater, and Osceola was one block west of Fort Harrison Avenue itself, where many of the church’s buildings were located.
“Are you a Scientologist?” Bonnie asked Lisa. “Yes, I am,” she answered.
Lisa said to the police officer that her Jeep needed to be towed to a specific parking spot at her building, but the officer told her they couldn’t guarantee that. So Lisa then asked that her friend, Bennetta Slaughter, who was also her boss at AMC Publishing, where she worked, come get her car. She gave the police officer Bennetta’s phone number.
Bonnie and Mark then took Lisa to the nearest hospital, which had been named after a wealthy New York man, Morton Plant. In 1918, while the family was on vacation in Florida, Plant’s son was injured in a car accident in Clearwater, where there was no hospital at the time. Plant had to have a surgical team sent by railroad all the way from New York to treat the boy. He then paid to have a hospital built in the city, and it still bears his name.
At Morton Plant Hospital, Lisa was checked for physical injuries — there didn’t seem to be any — and then a psychiatric nurse was asked to examine her to determine if she met the criteria for being Baker Acted. But by then, some Scientologists had started arriving, and they were letting hospital personnel know that psychiatry was against everything they stood for.
There’s no doubt that Lisa was a deeply involved Scientologist and had shared the organization’s feelings about psychiatry. She was also involved in trying to improve Scientology’s reputation in the town, where the church had been viewed with suspicion since it arrived, surreptitiously, in 1975. Bennetta Slaughter, Lisa’s boss, was instrumental in a new push to make Scientology appear more friendly to the locals.
One of the things Slaughter believed could help improve Scientology’s image was an annual seasonal display called Winter Wonderland. The Los Angeles Scientology church had been putting one on for years, and Lisa enthusiastically became involved in the project to put one on in Clearwater. The display, a sort of Santa’s Village, gave the impression that Scientology celebrated Christmas. And there were certainly no public indications that, in fact, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, in his lectures, had claimed that Jesus Christ and Christianity itself were just “mental implants” that “evil psychs” had imposed on thetans — the name for our immortal selves. Jesus, in other words, was just a figment of the imagination according to Scientology. But that didn’t prevent the church from putting on a jolly holiday display to fool the locals.
On Saturday morning, Lisa had got up very early — she annoyed Brenda Hubert, who had dropped her off at home the night before after a three-day business conference in Orlando, with a phone call at 6:30 a.m. — and wanted to get to the warehouse where her fellow AMC Publishing employees would be painting props for that year’s Winter Wonderland. She was met there that morning by Katie Chamberlain, a coworker at AMC who also happened to be Lisa’s Scientology “ethics officer.” For several hours, Lisa, Katie, and several other AMC employees painted props and talked. Then, around 1 pm, Katie took Lisa on a trip to find a store in nearby Dunedin that might have some supplies they could use, but they were unable to locate the shop. At that point, around 3 p.m., Lisa admitted that she was tired, and Katie took her home to her condo building.
Lisa’s own car, her red Jeep, was parked at the AMC Publishing location. While she was in Orlando that week, Lisa had let a friend drive it for several days, and, according to their plan, the friend had dropped it off at AMC on Saturday morning. Sometime later in the afternoon, after Katie dropped Lisa off, Bennetta Slaughter picked up Lisa to take her to her car at AMC. Lisa then spent some time at Bennetta’s house, and that’s where she was introduced to Bennetta’s new assistant, who had just arrived in town.
Her name was Mary DeMoss.
Mary was so new to her job, she hadn’t actually moved yet. She was still living in Miami and had come over to meet Bennetta and David Slaughter. And while she was there, Bennetta introduced her to Lisa. Mary noticed right away that there was something off about Lisa. She was acting bizarre and seemed disoriented. And then, suddenly, she vanished.
The way she disappeared alarmed the Slaughters, and Bennetta told Mary to sit tight while she went out to see where Lisa had gone. Lisa, meanwhile, was driving into the back of Joe McDonald’s boat.
And so, when police called Bennetta’s number from the scene of the accident, it was actually Mary DeMoss who answered the phone.
Unsure how to reach Bennetta, Mary decided on her own to head for Morton Plant Hospital to see Lisa. And that’s how Mary ended up being the first Scientologist to arrive at Lisa’s bedside.
Bennetta, meanwhile, did end up spotting Lisa’s car on the side of the road at the scene of the accident. When she learned from a police officer what had happened, Bennetta, who had an extreme aversion to emergency rooms, asked her husband David to go to the hospital, as well as an OT 8 Scientologist who also happened to be Lisa’s chiropractor, a woman named Jeannie Decuypere. Jeannie was second to arrive at the hospital and had no idea who Mary was. David soon arrived, followed by Alain Kartuzinski, a Scientology official from the Fort Harrison Hotel, and more were showing up.
When psychiatric nurse Joe Price arrived to interview Lisa, three of the Scientologists were at her bedside. One of them handed Price a brochure about Scientology’s feelings about psychiatry. It made the claim that psychiatrists rape or at least intimidate their female patients.
Price tried to ignore them as he looked Lisa over and began talking with her. He asked her why she had taken off all her clothes in the street, and she said she had done it to get attention, and that she had done it because she didn’t want to be arrested. When she answered, he noticed, it took her a moment to respond, like she was thinking hard about things. She even crossed her eyes a little before giving answers, and when Price asked about that, she said it helped her concentrate.
Price wanted to talk to Lisa alone. Joe had assured the Scientologists that he was not a psychiatrist, but a nurse. But he wondered if their presence intimidated Lisa and kept her from speaking freely. He talked to the attending physician, Dr. Flynn Lovett, who asked the Scientologists to leave the room. But they were just around the corner, and Joe could see them peeking around it, trying to hear what was going on.
He asked Lisa if she felt intimidated by the other Scientologists, but she said that she did not feel that way. Price thought she might not be telling the truth. But her answers, even with her slight delays, were cogent and clear. She didn’t appear suicidal or a danger to others. Price knew that she didn’t fit the criteria to be Baker Acted. If Lisa and the Scientologists did not want a psychiatric evaluation, the hospital would be unable to make her undergo one.
Price told Lovett what he’d found, and Lovett asked the Scientologists to allow Lisa to stay for more observation. But they told him they wanted to take her with them. They promised Lovett that they would take good care of her. Lisa, meanwhile, agreed to go with them. The hospital had no legal way to keep her.
They got Lisa dressed, and then led her away from her hospital bed, planning to put her in one of the rooms at the Fort Harrison Hotel.
When Joe Price watched them walking her down the hall, three Scientologists to each side of her, he had one thought, which he later told police.
“My God, this lady’s a prisoner.”
Reporter’s afterword: Your proprietor wrote this story after going through dozens of original police reports of interviews done with the people involved. It was only after completing it that we checked on Janet Reitman’s version of the same events in her excellent book, Inside Scientology, and realized that she — and many others — treat the Scientologists showing up at Morton Plant Hospital after Lisa McPherson’s arrival as some kind of mystery. But the original police documents don’t suggest that there’s any mystery at all. It’s right there in Bonnie Portolano’s interview: While she had Lisa in the ambulance, a police officer asked Lisa where she wanted her car towed. When he told her they couldn’t guarantee that it would be put in a specific parking spot, she said she’d rather have a friend come get it and gave the police officer a telephone number. There should be little doubt that was Bennetta’s number, and that the police officer would have told Mary DeMoss why he was calling, that Lisa McPherson was on her way to Morton Plant Hospital. It’s really no mystery at all why Scientologists — Mary was the first of them — soon began showing up there. Part of why we’re doing this new look at what happened 20 years ago is just for this reason — it’s good to clear up the little misunderstandings that even a generation of observers somehow missed.
Bonus photos from our tipsters
Thanks to one of our locals on the scene who captured this young Scientology worker in Clearwater recently…
Hey, girl. I just completed my Objectives here in Denver. And now my objective is you!
We didn’t get a chance to include photos in our book, so we’ve posted them at a dedicated page. Reader Sookie put together a complete index and we’re hosting it here on the website. Copies of the paperback version of ‘The Unbreakable Miss Lovely’ are on sale at Amazon. The Kindle edition is also available, and shipping instantly.
Our book tour is concluded for now. (But you can re-experience it through this nifty interactive map!) We’ll let you know about future appearances. Previous events: Santa Barbara (5/16), Hollywood (5/17), Orange County (5/17), San Diego (5/20), San Francisco (5/22), New York (6/11), Chicago (6/20), Toronto (6/22), Clearwater (6/28), Washington DC (7/12), Hartford (7/14), Denver (7/17), Dallas (7/20), Houston (7/22), San Antonio (7/24), Austin (7/25), Paris (7/29), London (8/4), Boston (8/24), Phoenix (9/15), Cleveland (9/23), Minneapolis (9/24), Portland (9/27), Seattle (9/28), Vancouver BC (9/29), Sydney (10/23), Melbourne (10/25), Adelaide (10/28), Perth (10/30)
Posted by Tony Ortega on November 18, 2015 at 07:00
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